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Should PRs just ignore The Times?

Posted by Danny Whatmough on 16th July 2010

I was quoted in an article in PR Week today, responding to a survey the publication ran looking at reactions to The Times paywall. The PRWeek/OnePoll survey of 3,000 members of the public found 78 per cent did not think the paid-for model would succeed and 67 per cent thought its previous users would visit other newspaper sites instead.

As I said in the article, the problem for The Times is that putting the entire site behind a wall, most potential readers will just stay away:

“By putting its entire site behind a paywall, The Times is hoping the strength of its brand will convince a small, but hardcore, segment of readers to stump up some cash. The obvious question therefore is whether the brand alone is strong enough to convince users to subscribe. If the brand isn’t strong enough, the focus is on whether The Times generates enough valuable and unique content to convince visitors to pay. The challenge for The Times – and its competitors – is to achieve a balance between free and paid-for content. Publishers should provide general news for free, but charge for niche content.”

“It’s an empty world”

This follows comments from US media columnist Michael Wolff, writing on the Newser website claiming that hardly anyone is subscribing to The Times:

“My sources say that not only is nobody subscribing to the website, but subscribers to the paper itself—who have free access to the site—are not going beyond the registration page. It’s an empty world.”

Wolff continues in a more controversial vain and even questions the influence of The Times for the PR industry:

“The wider implications of this emptiness are only just starting to become clear. A Murdoch and Fleet Street veteran with whom I’ve been corresponding about the paywall reported to me on his recent conversation with an A-list entertainment publicist: “What was really interesting to me was that this person volunteered a blinding realisation. ‘Why would I get any of my clients to talk to the Times or the Sunday Times if they are behind a paywall? Who can see it? I can’t even share a link and they aren’t on search. It’s as though their writers don’t exist anymore.’””

I’m not going to start suggesting that clients simply ignore The Times (after all, the print edition still has a fairly impressive readership), but at a time when PRs need to focus on influence and ROI, it’s not something that should be ignored.

Danny Whatmough